A bunch of days ago, I was having my usual walk. And as always, in the meantime, my mind was wandering as well. And I -surprise surprise- came to think of music, and specifically of some quasi-philosophical music-related bulls**t.
I was thinking that I don’t really get the “sorry, this is not my genre” argument anymore. Hold on, this is going to be a stream of consciousness. A hard and long one. On with the nonsense, fasten your seatbelts.
But hey, as one famous serial killer once said (or was he a prophet?) “nonsense makes sense”. I hope so, for this time around. Bear with me.
First: if you are able to say “this is not my cup of tea” while listening to something, have you ever thought of how do YOU consciously define that cup of tea of yours? If you don’t like something, are you able to tell yourself why? Have you ever thought of the fine line between liking and appreciation? And what if you don’t like tea at all, by the way? Well enough sarcasm, on to this.
The actual question you should ask yourself is: what do you look for in music?
I came to realize I personally think of the art of listening in either one of three mindsets: either I’m consciously in a specific mood and I’d look for something that would reflect that (that should be, of course, known to me in order for myself to get to that conclusion), or I deliberately want to listen to specific musical elements (and I would then find a way to get to them), or, most likely scenario as I’d rather look forward than backwards, I’d want to listen to something completely new to my ears than before.
That’s where the fun begins, as it’s increasingly difficult to find fresh air for your eardrums after almost 20 years of active listening, argh.
In addition, we’re in 2017. With the amount of culture the average person is able to access to, the line between a casual listener and a music lover is getting both subtler and bolder, in different ways. Let me elaborate.
I mean, we have the internet. Which means infinite availability of content at the only price of your willingness to get a hold of it.
If you ask someone “what music do you listen to?” one could still get back to you with the evergreen “well, just a bit of everything man”. Aaaaaand here’s when my alarm goes off, folks.
I always thought there are just two binary, black-and-white interpretations to this: either you’re the most casual of listeners and that “bit of everything” is probably just what the mainstream is feeding you (might as well just be the radio), so music is not really your passion (and there’s nothing bad about it, it’s just not a thing that deeply interests you, so not your priority) or you are the straight opposite, a music lover who ACTUALLY listens actively to a bit of everything you can get your hands (pardon, ears) on. One who does his research and is curious, easily bored and eager for new exciting noises.
So that’s what I meant by stating “the line is getting at the same time subtler and bolder”.
I don’t believe in the concept of “my cup of tea” anymore. We’re getting rid of labels and genres, everything is –still slowly but may I say finally- converging to the broad concept of “music”, or better, just art. For instance, heavy metal as we knew it in the 80s is done and gone. Even metal in the present trends is now being approached in jazzier, poppier or more avant-garde ways than ever before. The approach is changing and all artists are getting more open minded and collaborative. Have you explored enough?
I mean music is all music, it’s pointless to still think of labels in an artistic world that’s more integrated than ever.
Good artists just use their influences to produce art, not “dance” or “jazz” or “pop” or “metal”, and that’s how it should be. As I like to remember, labels are born in a press realm, created to be able to “speak” about music, and that’s the best place to keep them, period. There’s a whole world of ideas out there, use your ears and imagination.
Again, have you ever thought of the fine line between liking and appreciation? If you do like music, as in any art form, you should be able to at least appreciate any creation for what it is.
So I wouldn’t think of cups of tea anymore. We’re getting to something that’s more like an ever flowing stream, an endless river of tea if you wish? And for the record, I always enjoyed coffee lots more. F**k tea once and for all. Ok enough rambling, this is getting surreal.
Back to scenario one of my above discussed approaches to listening, I mentioned mood reflections. That’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in the “cup of tea” thing, or better, why I think you should really be able to explain your taste to yourself. You probably don’t like a certain soundscape in that precise moment of your life because that doesn’t resonate with who you are at the moment. I think it’s part of a mirroring process.
Music is music, it’s just emotional math, don’t blame the artist if you don’t like it. Well if you’re a musician and you are not finding anything musically interesting in a piece from an analytical standpoint, I can’t blame you, because a second listening won’t change the composition.
But from a purely “listening”, emotional point of view, that piece of sound (or lyrics, if there are any) is just maybe “incompatible” with you, but that doesn’t mean it will be forever. Try to leave it behind for some years. Have some new experiences, grow older and then bring it back to your ears. You’ll surely see something completely different in it, may it be in the music or lyrics. It just works like that, it’s our brain. See my point?
Scenario two. Navigating through known music, or its elements, is maybe the only instance in which I’d allow myself to use labels, albeit just broad ones. In general, I still prefer to be openly descriptive.
So I might go off as “well, just want to blast some primal intensity, I’ll look for some punk”. Or, the above with some more elaborateness to it, maybe some metal. Or “I’m feeling lighthearted and I’d just like to hear some catchy simple melodies, let’s jump on something poppy”. Or “I want to hear all new solutions. Anything jazzy or avant-garde out there?”. Or I’d think of “I’d like to hear wacky riffs on alternate tunings”, or “jazzy drumming with lots of dynamics”, or “great vocal lines”, or stuff. Blah blah, so on and so forth. Quite clearly, this is an approach which doesn’t always lead me to find out something actually new (to me).
Labels are just words, definitions. And definitions are always limiting by their own very nature.
Just listen to stuff and if you dig it, you dig it.
I think music is the coolest art form, as it is the most abstract.
Within the infinite amount of possibilities, I like to think you can mainly play around these three macro-variables: substance, form, and perception. All of them are complementary and intertwined. There’s a fine line between the three though, as nothing is ever really new but a re-elaboration of previous ideas.
Aren’t we just able to invent new rules for the same old games?
But heck, if we didn’t ever try to strive for new sounds, we would still be slamming one rock with another, or at best we’d have stopped to Bach.
Please note I’m not musically trained by any means, I’m just crazy, and that’s just my vision. I’ll try to elaborate.
I refer to substance as to the core of music, just barebones composition. Again, at the end of the day, may it be classical or death metal, music is still music (and that’s its beauty), so it’s all notes within a time frame and you can do whatever you want with them. You can have your choices: example you can choose to be melodic, dissonant, to think in a tonal, or modal, or even atonal realm. Plus all the rhythmical choices. Melody, harmony, rhythm. It’s endless already isn’t it.
After substance, you can play on your form. Form and perception are the ornaments to your composition, let’s call them over-structures.
About form: which aesthetic are you falling in? Is it light or dark, elegant or fierce, simple or complex, explanatory or mysterious? Are you using real instruments or synthetized sounds (electronics)? And specifically, which instruments are you using, and how are you using them? Each timbre carries some peculiar emotional content even on the same line of music. So on. Lyrics also play a big role in aesthetics, but that’s a whole other story.
This being said, I like to think that even when you have exhausted the seemingly numberless possibilities of substance and form you can still play around on perception, enabling even more intellectual combinations. I think perception is part composition and part communicative embellishments.
Let me tell you this simple metaphor: think of two notes, an octave apart. It’s still the same note, but in a purely subjective way, aren’t you “perceiving” them differently? I think that’s the magic in small things about music.
Think of the impact that the duality between consonance and dissonance has on perception alone. Just think of how we perceive major vs minor, and that’s still nothing in the realm of composition.
The modern day studio realm can add some more trickery to sound perception, as with sound design, or pretty much the way we record sound in itself, as you can be tricked in perceiving loud sounds quiet and vice versa.
Some more naive metaphors. Think screaming versus singing, it’s all about perception.
If I’m saying “f**k you” at your own face, I could maybe say it while laughing, or bursting with anger. The words are the same (substance), but it’s how you use them that makes a difference in communication (form \ perception). If a pretty girl walks past you on the street and bumps into you saying “sorry” with a subtle voice, and if a massive Barry White with his incredibly deep voice would do the same, wouldn’t your reaction be different, even if it is the same word and situation?
So being music all about communication of a sentiment, form and perception do a lot.
If you were a painter and you could think of a new color, wouldn’t you use it? I’d say you should just because you could.
On the other hand, would you ever go after Pablo Picasso and tell him “hey dude, what the heck are you doing with those cubes? Look at Michelangelo!”. No you wouldn’t, at least if you’re not a close-minded f**ker. It’s all means of freedom of expression, isn’t it?
Let’s go further on my ideas on perception: think of culture. We as western people have a certain set of “musical ideas” encrypted in our brains since birth, because of culture. Culture makes us who we are. So for instance, culture makes us instinctively strive towards diatonic melody. As it makes Bulgarians strive toward odd-metered wedding dances. As it makes Indians go for extremely complex rhythmic figures and a whole different set of scales. So on for music from all over the world.
So isn’t it mind-boggling that musicians all around the world get to the point that they try to study music from a culture different from their own, just to have their ears take a breath of fresh air since they’re so bored by the possibilities offered by their own culture, which they explored ad nauseam? And that a man’s musical freshness is still and forever another man’s cause of boredom? I still find this terribly fascinating.
So: substance, form, and perception. Plus is general, music is art, and it’s all subjective and somehow arbitrary. It means you can make mistakes just as long as you like to call them that.
Change your set of rules and you’ll change your concept of “wrong”, isn’t it?
Ok here we are. Did it make any sense? I don’t know, but I find all of this incredibly beautiful.
So that’s what I thought of while walking. I also thought I often find myself stuck in the bubble of my own (musical) culture, vision or general habits, and I realize there’s so much absolutely fascinating stuff out there I still have to get to know or learn, but I don’t always know how or when to reach for it.
“The curse of ‘there must be more’ ”, oh you.
At least we have the internet and it’s relatively easier to stumble upon new stuff.
You know, that moment when your favorite things get boring, you get bored of yourself, other people get boring, life gets boring, death gets boring as well. Then something you haven’t thought of before sparks the magic back on. You get a bit of room in your bubble then, but you’ll soon feel like suffocating again, so on, repetition.
So cheers to the pleasures of discovery. I’ll keep walking…